By Nupur Saraswat:
When I found myself running away from a group of scrawny Balinese men at 5 A.M. on an unlit January morning, I understood the ugly side of tourism. The day before, my boyfriend and I had decided to scale the height of Mt. Batur in Bali, one of the world’s most beautiful active volcanoes. We wanted to be able to catch the promisingly breathtaking sunrise from the top. Lonely Planet said that we didn’t need a guide or a professional trekker with us; the climb was short and fairly easy. We arrived at the tiny village where the trailhead was located. The village was peculiar in the way that everybody had an inadequate side business which clearly didn’t support their families. Their main income seemed to come from the tourists. The whole village was sustained on tourism.
“Are you going trekking on Batur?”
“Do you have a guide?”
“No, we don’t need one.”
“Oh but you can’t go alone. The community won’t let you.”
This was the scope of the conversations we had with every stranger that approached us. Though we never found out what this “community” was, we soon found out what it represented. This tiny village had a tiny secret – the location of the trailhead of Mt. Batur. And they had one simple rule – no tourist would trek on this mountain without paying an obnoxious amount to have a local man accompany them on this 45 minute long walk. We were lucky to have found the trailhead, but as we had predicted, it was guarded. These men kept insisting that it was in fact a government policy to not trek this mountain without a local tour guide. It was not. And being hassled this way, we decided that no matter what, we were not paying them for a service we didn’t need. It was no longer just about money, it was about not caving in to some “community”. The argument between the tour guides and us soon turned sour, they made it very clear that they’d not “allow” us to go up the mountain alone. My boyfriend wanted to find out how they were going to prevent us; I decided it was time to run. We did see the sunrise that day but in silence, with an unspoken bitterness. We met a South African couple on the way back, who referred to the people we had just dealt with as the “village mafia”. I didn’t believe that it was a mafia-run village. But I did believe that their tourism driven economy was making them do anything for the tourist Rupiah.
We explored the rest of Bali – all depths of it. And in the process, we found an island where beauty came at a cost, where nature had a price tag. We found priests who prayed for a show, we found farmers who farmed for agro tourism, and we found traditions kept alive just to entertain us. We found a place where you could find your inner self for a few dollars with the help of the “Inner Peace tutor”. We found a 15-year-old girl at a massage parlour who had left her village because enough tourists didn’t come to her village, and had moved to the largest city in Bali. We found a beautiful island doting on us to come on down because if we didn’t, they’d have no other way to feed their families. That serene winter, we found the ugly side of tourism.